Alan Pakula’s neo-noir thriller The Parallax View (1974), despite a lukewarm reception upon release, has become a cinematic text of continuing theoretical applicability in critical film discussion. The film’s core telos can be recontextualized endlessly in the five decades since its release, functioning as a sort of diagram of business ethics and political conspiracy during late-stage capitalism. The film’s central struggle is between a tenacious and single-minded journalist, Joe Frady, and the impersonal and formless corporate structure of the titular Parallax Corporation, who the former believes is a staging a large-scale conspiracy of politically motivated assassinations. The film reflects of the political turbulence surrounding the time of its release; the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. by rogue gunmen were fresh in the memory of the American public. The motivations that underpinned these historical events could not be externalized to an invading force or opposing creed, and had to be reckoned with as systemic cannibalism of the United States empire. In the wake of the disillusionment caused by assassinations of the 1960s, The Parallax View suggests that the virtues foundational to the American empire can mobilize violence with very few ideological tweaks.
Frady attempts to understand the operations of the Parallax Corporation by entering the program himself. For the preliminary questionnaire application, he uses answers taken from a serial killer, and when meeting with a representative of Parallax he puts on airs of volatile lonerism so as to appear fit for the company’s criteria for hiring killers. Frady is approved to move forward with the company and complete further screening procedures, one of which is viewing a montage of images with textual labels with a pulse monitor to gauge the response the applicant has to the visual media. The montage begins with images of traditional family values and domestic bliss with labels like FATHER, MOTHER, LOVE, and COUNTRY, which is then contrasted by images of Nazi parades and Maoist propaganda with the label ENEMY. The initial us-against-them delineation is challenged when the acceleration and rearrangement of the images introduce photos of lynching, the Vietnam war, and fascist manifestations within the US. The confoundment of American values with American history crescendos with photos of obscured gunmen firing at unknown targets, which prompts a resettling into a more legible and unchallenging sequence that again aligns GOD, COUNTRY, and LOVE with peaceful images of pastoral simplicity and family harmony; the arc of the visual media suggests direct interventions of violence to be an imperative step in the resolution of the national spirit. The purpose of the montage shown to potential candidates straddles between a screening procedure and a method of indoctrination, one that literalizes the impulse that is honed and ultimately weaponized by the Parallax Corporation—That being that the killers selected are not bent on an anti-american vendetta, but are channeling patriotic zeal that forcefully eliminates the ‘threats’ to American democracy and liberty. The reformatting of untenable crimes as an effort to ameliorate the soul of the U.S. were the rationales of The Parallax View’s real life contemporary killers, be it for JFK, RFK, MLK, or Malcom X.
This sequence operates as the thematic skeleton that the rest of the narratives fleshes out, and it is one noted in many of the other critical discussions of the film, but another element of the montage makes it feel urgent and compelling while reckoning with the politics of terrorism in the 2020s. Intermixed between the antinomies of allegiance and antagonism occurring on a macro scale, the montage concurrently constructs a more personal crisis that is even more dire to the candidates. Images of lecherous excess and female bodies are contrasted with scenes of estrangement and isolation: a photo of a man alone in a cell is an identifier, and the nude female body the object of desire. The personal insecurities and vulnerabilities of a disenfranchised male loner carries potent and eruptive charge that can graft easily to violent patriotic delusions, and as such it accompanies the political motives of the Parallax Corporation during the montage. The subconscious libidinal anxiety imbricates a pursuit of internal redemption from estrangement with targeted brutality to achieve national effect. And though there may not exist a central nexus that facilitates politically motivated violence like the Parallax Corporation, finding ways to relate the discrete instances of violence so as to find larger patterns and meanings is a more civil and holistic method to remediate the soul of the U.S.